In August 2013, Geoff Johnson returned to his childhood home in a suburb outside of Omaha, Nebraska for the first time since he left nearly 20 years before. His mother—who had struggled with compulsive hoarding since Geoff was a child—had passed away, and he and his sister had the responsibility of sorting through her belongings to prepare to sell the house.
When Geoff first returned through the door, memories of a life he had left behind flooded back to him. Other than a few shopping bags and some deterioration in the parts of the house, mostly everything in the interior was exactly the same as when he had last seen it in the ’90s. Old toys, newspapers, plastic jugs, and personal items covered the floors, and thin pathways led to commonly used parts of the house. Geoff had known for a few years that he wanted to photograph the deteriorated living conditions he had grown up in for a personal project, even before his mother had passed. At first, he thought about taking an architectural approach: wide-angle shots that exposed the space and the clutter—possibly a few detailed vignettes. But as Geoff and his sister Jennifer, who assisted on the project, explored the home, they started making connections to their personal stories and decided to explore the idea of what it was like to be a kid that lived there.
I’ve always wanted to keep it about the art and about shooting a personal project … the story is what’s driving people to come and look at the work. It’s everything that’s been inside me for so long, in pictures now.
The final project is a series of composite images that show his son and her daughter in situations around the home that would be common for them during their childhood. The children were photographed off location and edited in during post, as the house’s current state was too dangerous for them to enter. As Geoff mapped out the project, he remembered the struggles that he had as a boy growing up in the clutter. The project illustrates situations that were commonplace for Geoff and his sister, and their children directly represent each of them. In the image below, Geoff’s son stands in the kitchen, keeping himself warm with the heat from the oven. Geoff remembers the heat turning off, and his mother being scared to turn it back on.
In the next shot, his niece is seen standing next to the entrance to the hallway bathroom:
That’s coming out of my bedroom, that’s what I would see everyday. That’s what I remember … I grew up with two women. The bathroom door would never shut. I had to train myself—if I heard someone in the bathroom not to come out. To think about that for my own kids, that is not OK.
During the week after the series first appeared on Feature Shoot in April, Geoff’s site received 150,000 hits. The story was then picked up by other outlets such as Design Taxi, Yahoo News, ABC News and the Daily Mail. The series is unique in the fact that it involves children—many hoarding photos don’t show that aspect. In the months following the release of the project, Geoff has received daily emails from people who have had similar experiences as kids. Often, they are thanking him for shining a light on something that is a part of so many people’s lives.
The project has given Geoff a platform to talk about his experiences and share them with others. Throughout the process, it was important for him to overcome the fear and vulnerability that comes with sharing his art to tell their story.
[The project] has brought us a little closer to understanding and closure, in terms of me trying to make sense of it … it’s been a healing process.